Islay, the southernmost island in the Inner Hebrides, is probably best known for its whisky production – there are currently eight active distilleries in operation there – but, for golfers, it will always be associated with the iconic Machrie links on Laggan Bay, a course that was originally laid out back in 1891.
Designed by Willie Campbell three years before he left for America to become the first professional at The Country Club in Brookline, the old-fashioned layout was modified by Donald Steel in the 1970s when, in the words of the architect, he made it “more complete, more modern and more challenging”.
Unfortunately, the hotel and golf course then ran into financial difficulties, bringing about a change of ownership in 2011. Ex-BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and his wife Sue Nye, former diary secretary to Gordon Brown when he was British Prime Minister, acquired the business with the aim of rebuilding the hotel and renovating the golf course.
Architect DJ Russell was called in to oversee what amounted to a complete redesign of the layout, ably assisted by course manager Dean Muir (who’d been at Muirfield for 17 years) and construction men Eric and Robert Sammells from Edinburgh Landscapes. A short par three course, driving range, putting green and practice area were also added to enhance the golfing infrastructure.
The refurbished course reopened for play in May 2017 with only seven of the original greens retained in an imaginative new course routing that still weaves wildly in and out of the dunes. Fairways are wider than before, offering a good chance of recovery from poor tee shots or wayward approach shots, and blind shots aren’t entirely eliminated, though there are far fewer to be played now.
Traditionalists will mourn the loss of the old Machrie and for sentimental reasons that’s understandable. However, the nostalgic attributes of the former course weren’t enough to attract golfers in sufficient numbers and the place was dying on its feet – it might well have perished forever – before a significant level of investment was made to remodel the layout and build new visitor accommodation.
The new Machrie is now geared up to handle visitors long into the future, with the 48-bedroomed hotel opening in 2018. Rather than look back with regret at the loss of the old course, golfers who still pine for the old days and the old ways should really be grateful that somebody felt it worth their while reviving an old classic to make it fit for purpose in the modern era.
I looked ahead to my visit to Islay last week with a degree of trepidation – would the new Machrie be so radically different to the old course that I wouldn’t like it? I’d played the original layout twice before and I loved it to bits so I was really worried that DJ Russell’s new vision for the links might not compare favourably with what I’d experienced before. However, within minutes of stepping out onto the revitalised course, any prior concerns I might have had were immediately dispelled.
I can’t really sympathize with anybody who’s played here in the past and still yearns for a return to the old days – I’m sorry, but that old-fashioned golfing gem was really unsustainable in the modern world (as proven by the business going bust a while back) and in its place there’s now a magnificent new links which is fit to serve golfers for another hundred years and more. Forget about what’s gone before; rejoice instead in being able to play a brilliant new track that still embodies much of the old course’s charms!
For crying out loud, it’s located on the same site – it’s not as if it’s moved miles away! If anything, the new routing actually enhances the vistas along Laggan Bay (from the tee boxes on the short par four 7th and par three 9th, for instance), it eliminates the internal OOB on one of the old holes and it still permits blind shots to be played on several holes – starting with the drive on the 1st tee!! Bunkers have also been reduced from eleven to five, though in fairness, a few more strategically placed sand hazards wouldn’t go amiss.
One of the best aspects of the new Machrie is width – yes, I know it doesn’t exactly punish big hitters who stray offline but name me a new course built nowadays that doesn’t allow golfers generous latitude off the tee, allowing less competent golfers a decent chance of playing a recovery shot? More than half a dozen of the original putting surfaces have been retained and the new versions have plenty of internal contouring with imaginative swales surrounding the greens.
I was delighted to see the old 5th hole largely retained – the green’s been moved 50 yards back – as it’s a wonderful downhill par four played towards the beach. I was also pleased to see the old 9th had gone – it’s 20-yard wide fairway “shelf” was always too narrow – though some might scratch their head when they see the big dip that fronts the green on the replacement hole, the new par four 8th (pictured) – personally, I loved such a quirky aspect, which is quite in keeping with the spirit of the old Machrie.
I thought the split fairway on the left doglegged 12th worked really well and the big step in the green on the par three 14th (pictured) was quite a talking point among the group I played with. Then, just when I thought the round would end in a conventional manner, up popped the penultimate hole, veering sharply right to the old 17th green (formerly played blind over the top of the dunes) which is now approached from a different angle. This late homage to the old layout, replacing an eccentric hole on the old course with another unusual one, was a nice touch before concluding the round.
The hotel behind the 18th is still under construction and it’ll be a fabulous asset once it’s finished. I’m glad to have played the Machrie as it once was but I’m even happier to have played it now in its new guise. Islay is a special place to visit and the new course infrastructure – including the short par three course and driving range – will, along with the hotel, surely play a big part in attracting new golfers to tee it up at one of the finest links venues in the British Isles.
The King is dead, long live the King…
Couldn't agree more Jim. When we played here in May 2016 only the first 14 holes were opened, but we were blown away by a course which was an absolute delight to play, so much fun and just top quality. The island itself is also a treat; a great destination for golf, whiskey and the great outdoors. I can't wait to go back to play the full 18 holes of the new course.
I am a 7 handicap overseas golfer with experience playing more than 400 rounds on over sixty links courses in Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, the Isle of Man and Bandon Oregon over the last 25 years. These courses range from all the Open Rota Courses past and present, other grand Classics like Rosses Point, Carne, Waterville, Dornoch, Nairn, Machrihanish and Western Gailes, to modern links like Pacific Dunes and Castle Stuart and far flung gems like Shiskine, Durness, Rea, Scarista and Askernish. So please allow me some credit for having an informed opinion.
It is understandable that several recent reviews commend the Machrie by ASSUMING that the recent "upgrading and modernisation " changes are soundly based. Clearly they do not know what they have missed, because they have not played the old layout. I really do feel sorry that they will never know what a real gem of an old fashioned course this was and what has been lost in the process of, in my view, dumbing it down to mediocrity for the mass golf tourism market. I have played the old layout about ten times and have just played the new full modernised layout in May 2017.
There are only three good things to say about it. First the scenery and isolated position still make this a wonderful setting. The new hotel upgrade and extensions will be welcomed by most. The only good thing about the recent course changes though is that the replacement for the bland old Donald Steel par 3 10th [ new 9th ] is a much better and more attractive hole reversed in direction, with the resultant straightened fairway on the next hole an improvement, as it eliminates an internal out of bounds.
That said, the remainder of the changes are in my view entirely unnecessary, with the possible exception of the direction of the first fairway to accommodate hotel extensions. These changes eliminate almost all the blind shots which were an attractive, fun and unique feature of the course. They formerly made sure that the course did not give up all of its secrets when played for the first time. No great course ever does! However with GPS gadgets and marker stones, all holes were still playable for the first timer. But it encouraged the avid links golfer to stay longer and get at least two rounds in. Surely a good and unique marketing ploy for owners with some sales expertise!
In addition, many fairways have been widened and natural waste areas minimized, eliminating the former natural gradual increases in difficulty of your lie, the wider off line the shot. Wide fairways are not unusual on some great links, however there must be commensurate hazards built in as at St Andrews Old Course to require the player to consider lateral as well as longitudinal strategies. There is precious little of this in the new works. Result; its now a more boring driving course fit for "sluggers/bashers".
Furthermore, it seems that the shapers got into their heads that the natural seabed derived contours around many greens were a little too random, so these appear to have been smoothed and graded till the whole effect visually and in response to the bounce of the ball is rather more "formula", predictable and artificial than it once was !! Forget chipping, just putt from up to 20 yards away almost everywhere!!!
Lastly, the worst aspect of the redesign is the elimination or destruction of many fine holes / hole features too numerous to list; but here are just two examples.
The old 15th, "Willie Campbell's Finest" featured a superb driving aspect up a slow ramp full of historic lazy beds to a second shot with the finest view of the sea and a superb natural green and surrounds. Now completely ruined by re-routing and green/surrounds reshaping.
The old 9th, a really unique driving hole, ideally onto a lateral shelf of fairway and testing approach that might allow a clear view or be semi blind, depending on the quality of the drive and which would allow either a high or bounced on approach shot to a large green, replaced entirely by an inland straight hole with a cavern in front of the green, ensuring that only a high lobbed approach shot can be played for your second. YOU CANT BE SERIOUS!!!!!
In short, I am really angry and disappointed about what has been done in the name of progress to what I consider a unique, rare, historic design.
It is true that there have been changes to this course in the past, as there have been at similar ”old fashioned “ courses like Lahinch and Prestwick. But that’s no excuse for the wholesale changes done here.
Can you imagine the outcry at Lahinch if it were ever proposed to bypass the Klondyke and Dell holes there, or at Prestwick if it was proposed that the Cardinal bunker be filled in and the hilly older holes near the clubhouse be bulldozed into "Modern Conformity".
What you have here at the Machrie is something that was wonderfully unique and in this day and age extremely rare, that is now largely lost to modernised blandness, through re-routing / reshaping........ Shame!
Where were the voices of opposition from all the local people, Golfing Press and Architects, from the island and from mainland Britain, who supposedly cared about this iconic old course and used to play it regularly, when these plans emerged?
Played the Machrie in 2007. Went back this week Aug 2017 and while the course is in fantastic condition I think it has lost its charm of old. For me the wholesale redesign has meant a loss some of the classic Machrie holes, punchbowl greens, and blind tee shots have all but gone. The course now features wide fairways and encourages big hitting a feature of "modern" golf. Don't get me wrong I did enjoy the course but it's the loss of the quaint, historic unique links that I miss.
A couple of disclaimers in writing this review: 1. quite a few years ago, one of my daughters attended a wedding on Islay and brought home some souvenirs from the Machrie course for me; I’ve been marking my ball and fixing my ball marks with Machrie logo items ever since, so it’s had a warm place in my heart way before I ever set foot there. And 2. I’ve never played on the pre-renovation Machrie so I had nothing with which to compare my recent golf experience there. We let a 3-ball of locals play through, and they gently groused about the new course, saying they were ‘still getting used to it’.
The newly redesigned Machrie is a wonderful course. I had the pleasure of playing it twice, on May 5th and 6th in brilliant sunny weather. The first day, the wind machine was blowing at max 10—a chilly wind coming straight out of the east blowing right out to sea—and on the second day the wind machine was almost inconceivably cranked up to 11.
The course itself is starkly beautiful: close by the sea, treeless, undulating, scrubbed by the wind; and the layout is imaginative, with many memorable holes. Very few bunkers; the lay of the land presents enough of a challenge. As newcomers, there were many places where we’d have to climb up on dunes or on bluffs to see where the heck we were supposed to go. It’s a course I’d be happy playing again and again, and I would highly recommend a trip there.
Many details are still works in progress: the hotel is still being built, the scorecard was a piece of paper, the clubhouse is a little cabin on the edge of the construction zone, and a course guide would prove a useful tool. But these details are minor ones: the course itself is terrific. Go there; it’s wonderful links golf.
Just got back from playing the Machrie this weekend. Whilst the changes are not yet completed (only 14 holes open, required to play off matts from fairway, no proshop and no scorecard!), despite this it is still worthy of a 6 ball rating. If the last 4 holes are anything like as good as the first 14 the Machrie is going to rapidly ascend the rankings when completed.
This was my first time playing the course, but judging by some of the previous reviews it would seem like they are certainly an improvement, for example previous reviews describe the 3rd as a poor par 4, whereas now it is a good par 3 along the beach. I would say there is now no weak holes. The drive on the first is fairly uninspiring, but the approach slightly blind to a green set into the dunes is a glimpse of what is to come. The second a par 5 with a dogleg around a burn which runs the whole length of the hole is a real risk reward hole. And the course only gets better, the stretch from the 4th to the 9th is reminiscent of Royal St Georges. Another good par 5 (I think, no card meant not sure, but seemed about 500 yards off the back tee) at the 10th with another burn in play for the drive is followed by a narrow drivable par 4. The course we played finished with the 14th, which was the pick of the par 3s.
Whilst the course is not particularly difficult, I have to say it really was one of the most enjoyable courses I have played for some time (I enjoyed the course as much as I enjoyed the Brandon courses). There are no bunkers on the course and there is also no need for any. Quite a few of the fairways are wide, but that does not take away any of the interest. The course was also in good nick, which made the requirement to play off matts slightly annoying. Highly recommended, especially if you like whiskey!
These are exciting times for anyone involved with the Machrie. With a major course renovation well under way and a new hotel in the pipeline the latest owners have certainly committed to a substantial investment. We were lucky enough to play alongside Robert from Edinburgh Landscaping who is the lead shaper and finisher of the new design.
The majority of the old course is the layout we played last week, but it's now possible to get a genuine feel for the bold new routing as most of the fairway shaping is complete and many of the new greens are built.
The course will be lengthened from 6300 yards to almost 6800 from the back tees and to 6440 from the yellows as well as being changed from a par 71 to a par 72. A handful of the weaker holes are being altered dramatically or removed completely, many of the greens retaining their current location but most are being altered in some way.
There are currently six bunkers in play but all will disappear as course architect D J Russell feels that such an undulating and interesting piece of land can defend itself perfectly well without them. The new design cleverly routes many fairways between or around the dunes therefore removing most but not all of the numerous blind shots.
There is, without doubt, a real charm to the location of the course with fantastic views over the peat beds to the mountains and across beautiful Laggan Bay, making this is a special place for anyone who has played here.
Inevitably there will be much discussion as to the merits of such dramatic alterations to iconic golf holes but I firmly believe that when the dust settles the vast majority will see this as a positive leap forward for golf on Islay. I can't wait to return in a few years time to view the finished article. Brian W
Often the green is on a downslope behind a dune so your ball will tend to run through the back. The nature of the undulating fairways and hidden greens has negated the need for bunkers and as a result there are only ten on the whole course. The light rough at the edge of the fairways is actually quite thick so you will get very little run if you are just slightly off line.
Seven, eight and nine run alongside Lagan Bay on the left and are bordered by lovely dunes along the right. The par three 10th has the Machrie Burn in play on the left. Like the 5th, the wind tends to be from behind so staying on the green is the trick, even though you may only be hitting an eight iron. Not so the par three 12th, ‘New Mount Zion’, which is 174 yards uphill and usually into the wind.
There are some good par fours on the back nine but none better than the 17th. The shot into the sunken and hidden green is a real test of skill. It is far better to be a little long on this hole, otherwise you may have a virtually unplayable lie in the little craters that form natural bunkers. The par four 18th finishes with a blind second over a very high dune in the centre of the fairway, only 35 yards short of the green.
This review is an edited extract from Another Journey through the Links, which has been reproduced with David Worley’s kind permission. The author has exclusively rated for us every Scottish course featured in his book. Another Journey through the Links is available for Australian buyers via www.golfbooks.com.au and through Amazon for buyers from other countries.
The ingénue first and tenth holes gently and with little drama seduce you into the front and back nines, coaxing you into two sequences of natural golf holes, each carving pathways of immaculate links turf through deeply grassed dunes to beautifully presented greens. There are few bunkers, but each one is exactly where you wouldn’t want it to be. From a golfing perspective the progressions from the 4th to the 9th and from the 11th to the 18th are breathtaking; indeed the latter is simply brilliant. The views from almost every vantage point on the course across the island’s sea lochs and hills are stunning and unforgettable at all times; on a fine day they are sublime. Now the golfer who is not given to raising his eyes from his tee might grumble that the course is quite short, that he wasn’t able to capitalise on his length, that he lost his ball every time it went in the rough, and that there were a lot of blind shots (far too many I hear him say). All true. The Machrie would never be built today. But bear in mind that it wasn’t built at all; it’s been teased out of the existing land, great artists seeing the shapes that lay buried in the wild grasses.
Nostalgia plays its part, as at my years it must. In a warm glow I see the friends of my youth, many already gone, as we battled against each other and a raging gale, frozen and soaked to the skin; at other times in high June sunshine we managed four rounds in a day … the course was a little less demanding to walk back then. The long strolls(!) with the girls on the beach at Laggan Bay – jump over the fence at 3, 8 or 9 now – when my parents happily believed I was on the course perfecting my game. I was in a way. Golden recollections. Long, long ago. And so on to university, responsibility and real life. I was well prepared for the last. The Machrie had taught me to take the bad breaks with equanimity, the good ones with quiet pleasure, and to treat all mankind as equals, as they are, and do, at The Machrie. The Machrie. I shall arise and go now.